Missoula became a center of the anti-refugee settlement movement Monday morning as more than 100 people from across the state and Idaho took to the snow-lined sidewalk in front of the Missoula County Courthouse to decry what they see as a national threat.
“Right now, we’re locked in a battle to protect our security, to protect our country,” said organizer Jim Buterbaugh of Whitehall. “We are fighting the system, trying to head this thing off at the pass.”
Dubbed the “American Security Rally,” Buterbaugh expressed amazement at the turnout.
“I’ve had rallies several other times, and I didn’t have anybody show up but my family and a few other people,” he said.
This one struck a chord when Buterbaugh put up a “Call to Action” Facebook site 10 days ago. Within four days, he said, it had generated some 1,500 invitations.
“I figured I’m going to actually have to do something here,” he said.
Buterbaugh said he was looking at “all this crap going on” about Soft Landing Missoula organizing to help refugees from the Syrian crisis relocate to Missoula. That organization formed last September in the wake of reports of atrocities in the Middle East nation, and after a photo of the body of a 3-year-old child who washed ashore off Turkey underscored Europe’s refugee crisis.
He was spurred, too, by a letter dated Jan. 13 from Missoula County commissioners to the U.S. Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration. It was in support of Soft Landing’s quest to help resettling “approximately 100 refugees per year” through the International Rescue Committee’s Reception and Placement program.
Monday’s rally, scheduled for 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., ended in the cold shortly after 11:30 a.m. At least a dozen people used a sidewalk cornerstone to argue against such a move, as co-organizers constantly asked supporters to keep the middle of the sidewalk clear.
Buterbaugh said speakers would have to speak loudly to make themselves heard as they were told they couldn’t use a sound system he brought for fear it would interfere with proceedings inside the courthouse.
Soft Landing said in advance it wouldn’t hold a counter-rally, but along with the Montana Human Right Network issued statements before it began.
"We're saddened to see a group that's not from our community come in to tell us we shouldn't help people fleeing from violence," said co-founder Mary Poole. "Compassion is a Missoula value, Missoula successfully took in refugees for decades, and we know that once again our community will overcome the politics of fear in order to provide safe haven for war-town families."
Other opponents did show, standing away from the crowd on West Broadway during the rally. Several were American Indians of various tribes, including Dustin Monroe, a member of the Assiniboine and Blackfeet tribe who was invited to speak near the end of the morning. He was quickly challenged and shouted down.
Caroline Solomon of Bigfork, co-founder of the Montana chapter of Act for America, came from the Flathead on a bus with 27 others to lend their support to the rally.
Solomon said she came from Belgium and was made a U.S. citizen at the Missoula courthouse in 1995.
“I would make it clear we are not against immigrants,” she said. “We’re not against legal and legitimate refugees. Some have a right and should be coming into our country. The thing that we are against is, we are against and have a problem with unvetted refugees and those who are actually using ... loopholes to bring the jihadists in.
“We have a problem with the people telling us that they can vet these refugees. They cannot be vetted. Our own FBI and our own Homeland Security tells us so.”
“This is an invasion. It’s a government-sponsored invasion,” said Brad Trun of Seeley Lake.
“Why don’t they stay in their own country and fight?” asked Tom Wing, who urged the crowd to start “doing something” by flooding the chambers at Monday’s Missoula City Council meeting.
Brothers Bob and Steve Cabaniss drove to Missoula from Sandpoint, Idaho, for the rally. They said the new mayor of that town introduced a plan to establish a refugee camp there in his first week of office.
“Enough of us went to the town council meeting and we shut him down right there,” Bob Cabaniss said.
Two hearings drew packed houses, and the Sandpoint City Council tabled the idea after the first one. Mayor Shelby Rognstad withdrew his proposal at the second one on Jan. 20.
“So if you guys show up, you can shut it down,” Cabaniss said. “We shut it down in north Idaho.”
“Immigration by the administration is wrong,” said John Gibney of Hamilton, who sat with wife, Dee, on the side of the street with cardboard signs.
Dee Gibney said, “They hate Christians, Jews, women, gays.”
John Gibney said, “They rape, kill, destroy.”
“There is a legal way of doing things, an orderly way of doing things,” John Gibney said. “There has been since this country was founded. There’s a right way and they’re doing it the wrong way, and our black Muslim president is trying to bring this country down. And he’s doing a very good job with all of his lapdogs.”
The Gibneys have two adopted Korean children.
“Obviously, I’m not a racist. My wife is not a racist. We help as many people as we can,” said John Gibney.
Refugees “come over and they suck off the system,” Dee Gibney said. “They get medical care, they get food stamps, they get housing.”
At its peak, some 120 people were on the sidewalk and street at the Missoula rally, most in ardent, sometimes strident, support of the anti-refugee protest.
Buterbaugh opened by leading the Pledge of Allegiance, followed by a prayer for “the courage to move forward and the presence of mind and intelligence to understand what we need to do on this issue.”
Several people held American flags, and many more carried placards. Among the messages: “One comes in and then we can’t stop them”; “Refugees or terrorists?” “The threat is real”; “Trump that!” “Look at Germany”; and “Costly service to refugees. What about vets?”
Monroe sported a sign of a different kind on West Broadway.
“These guys R racist. Plain and simple,” it read.
Monroe, a Blackfeet Indian and University of Montana graduate, is founder and CEO of Native Generational Change in Missoula, a nonprofit grassroots organization that "works to improve daily life for all Native Americans," according to its website.
Monroe said his group and others are planning symposiums on racism in Kalispell during the next few months.
“I really don’t think this reflects Montana,” he said, motioning at the crowd nearby. “And I guess on something I don’t like is them playing the veteran card.
“I’m a U.S. veteran, an Iraq veteran. I served, but I’m also a Montanan, a Missoulian and a Native American. This is our land. Right here. Everybody talks about immigration. This is our land.”
“I think, bottom line, we’re all human,” said Krystal Two Bulls, an Oglala Lakota from Missoula who stood in support with Monroe.
As the rally drew to a close, Monroe was invited to address the crowd. He explained his military background, something shared by many on the sidewalk.
"When we were serving in the military, were there not different colors?" Monroe asked.
"That's not what this is about," someone from the crowd interrupted.
"This isn't about racism," someone else shouted.
"That’s OK, you can speak," Monroe said with a smile. "We all have our differences. I disagree with you guys. I don’t agree with some of the views here, but I think a lot of them are misperceptions, you know?"